This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein

In the book review section of The New York Times last fall Rob Nixon declared Naomi Klein’s latest book (This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate) to be “almost unreviewable.” I empathize. The body of the book is more than 450 pages long, dense, with hundreds of endnotes reflecting voluminous research, and she covers so many topics that no reviewer can do justice to them all.

The scope of This changes everything has not stopped reviewers from writing about it. The book has been called powerful, uncompromising, ambitious, and fierce. It is all those things, and Klein’s book is also an important and timely call to action. In particular, the book’s focus on “capitalism vs. the climate” raises questions not given sufficient attention in discourse about climate change.

This blog post focuses on the book’s key strengths and weaknesses, as I see them. Although not comprehensive, I hope that the post stimulates more thinking about the book.

A 2006 economic review (the Stern Review, conducted for the British government) stated that climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen. Capitalist economies have not included the true cost of climate change in the price of fossil fuels and treat carbon emissions as harmless.

Klein is angry at policymakers who have allowed this situation to continue for decades after the science of climate change became clear. She is angry at the fossil fuel companies that have resisted change, that continue to search for new reserves although they already have found more fossil fuels than can safely be used, and, in too many cases, that fund disinformation efforts to undermine confidence in scientific findings. Klein’s anger gives the book a polemical quality: e.g., fossil fuel companies are Bad; indigenous people are Good (because they protest mining and drilling).

Klein writes, “Policies that simply try to harness the power of the market— by minimally taxing or capping carbon and then getting out of the way— won’t be enough. If we are to rise to a challenge that involves altering the very foundation of our economy, we will need every policy tool in the democratic arsenal.” She notes that there is “no scenario in which we can avoid wartime levels of spending in the public sector—not if we are serious about preventing catastrophic levels of warming.”

However her proposed remedies can best be viewed as a brainstorming effort rather than a comprehensive set of policy proposals. For example, she suggests paying poorer nations to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and taxing profitable fossil fuel companies to raise funds to combat climate change. She favors more institutions divesting from fossil fuel companies. World trade agreements pose serious barriers to combating climate change, Klein believes, and need to be modified.

Although these may be excellent suggestions, I wished for a more comprehensive and better-developed list of policy proposals. During WWII the U.S. turned the nation’s production lines from automobiles to jeeps, tanks, and airplanes; should we re-tool industry today to produce tens of thousands of wind turbines and solar arrays quickly, using government subsidies? Would a substantial carbon tax be a good idea in the U.S.? If so, how will low-income people be helped as they adapt to higher fuel prices? Is rationing in order (say for gasoline)? How will states like Alaska, Kentucky, and Wyoming, whose revenues for state services depend so heavily on fossil fuels, be made economically viable as we phase out fossil fuels? Klein reports that capitalism is inadequate for the current crisis, but she does not paint a sufficiently clear picture of what aspects of capitalism need to change, when, or how.

This changes everything does point out that many needed changes reinforce one another. For example, growing income inequality could be addressed by creating more jobs in the “climate sector,” and funds to pay for addressing climate change could be raised partly by increasing taxes on the wealthy. The book is also useful in calling for a mass movement, along the lines of the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, to pressure policymakers into moving faster and more wisely. Some members of this movement need to engage in civil disobedience, Klein believes, as part of the growing effort in many nations that she calls Blockadia.

The book is suspicious of calls to address climate change through geoengineering, such as by injecting millions of tons of chemicals like sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to create tiny droplets that would reflect more sunlight and reduce global warming. (Curiously one of the supporters of geoengineering is the Heartland Institute, known for denying that climate change is anthropogenic.) Klein points out that geoengineering poses serious risks and can be used as an excuse for not doing more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately Klein’s book gives too little attention to the problematic role of democracy in combating climate change. By its nature democracy make it difficult for the government to take hard steps like raising taxes and devoting large sums of money to address goals that are perceived by many voters as distant or of uncertain value. Were that not true the U.S. would have made more rapid progress. Democracies are also prey to manipulation, such as when fossil fuel companies and conservative think tanks sow doubt about the causes of climate change. The combination of capitalism and democracy has been identified by other writers as a formidable and perhaps insurmountable barrier to moving quickly enough to prevent runaway climate change. Many people in the Western world became rich and comfortable based on economies using fossil fuels in huge quantities. Persuading citizens in democracies to make major social and economic changes is slow, difficult work.

It is true that Naomi Klein is on the side of the angels, and This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate is a passionate call to action. Yet we must wait for a different book (or state climate plans, or some other source) to provide concrete, achievable plans to address the climate crisis in capitalist democracies.